Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy: How Chiranjeevi’s period drama portrays patriotism for a contemporary audience
In the opening sequence of Chiranjeevi-starrer Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, a small contingent of soldiers from Rani Lakshmibai’s army in Jhansi contemplates whether it should continue fighting the war against a much bigger British army or if it should surrender. And just when they decide to give up, Lakshmibai (played by Anushka Shetty) tells them that they did not start the war to stop it midway. To inspire her army, she tells them the story of Uyyalawada Narasimha Reddy, and how he fought against the British East India Company with the help of peasants and other commoners long before the Sepoy mutiny. The queen tells her troops the freedom movement was ignited long before their time, and it is their duty to keep the fire burning.
In a way, the story of Narasimha Reddy is used as a catalyst to inspire the troops in the midst of the 1857 rebellion. As fictional as the idea of Lakshmibai recounting Narasimha Reddy’s life may seem, this incident changes the dynamics of how patriotism is portrayed throughout the film. By tracing the origin of an uprising, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy delves into the very essence of patriotism, and how the lives of people are intrinsically linked to the land where they were born.
The portrayal of patriotism, and what it stands for, in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, is a clear departure from the current political climate in the country where one’s love for the country is often questioned for reasons ranging from religious beliefs to criticism of the establishment. The biggest surprise in the film is a clear lack of jingoism, which has been so normalised that it is hard to find any piece of fiction, especially films, where one does not talk about it. Instead, the film underlines the importance of unity, and focuses on how the discontentment in the public sphere often triggers mass movements for change.
Set in the backdrop of draconian tax laws levied by the East India Company in the first half of the 19th century, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy takes a deeper look at how power became increasingly centralised and thus, leaving the people, even the local chieftains, at the mercy of the British administration. Further, the lack of unity among the local Polygars, who ruled over scores of villages under their fiefdoms, weakens their stand against the British administration’s policies. Each one of them was given a monthly allowance, and the taxes collected from the people were in turn diverted to British empire.
In this context, Narasimha Reddy tries to unite all the Polygars in the Renadu region (which is now part of Rayalaseema in Andhra Pradesh) against the orders of the British government. Although the Polygars are happy about the revival of the relations between the fiefdoms, the film also makes it evident that the Polygars themselves have not come to terms with how to stand up against the Britishers, and regain their glory. The turning point in the story comes when the local officials are ordered to collect taxes, despite a famine in the region. This irks Narasimha Reddy so much he declares that no one is going to pay taxes from his fiefdom until the villagers have enough grains and money to live. The film treats this act of rebellion as fire to stoke a patriotic fervour among the people. And as Narasimha Reddy goes on his mission to seek the help of other Polygars, the uprising gains strength, and turns into a full-blown patriotic call for keeping the fight alive to reclaim their right to live without any oppression.
There are quite a few other instances where the meaning of patriotism is explored at a more personal level. In one of the earliest sequences in the film, when Narasimha Reddy meets a dancer Lakshmi (Tamannaah), he encourages her to use her art for the sake of public. When Lakshmi tells him she dances only for God, he asks her, “Doesn’t God exist for the sake of people?” She falls in love with him, but, after a series of incidents which break her heart, Lakshmi tries to commit suicide. Narasimha stops her in the nick of time, and convinces her if she knows what she is living for then even her death will be meaningful. “You are a gifted dancer. Use your art and life for a good purpose,” he tells her again, and that inspires her to set out on a journey where she spreads the word around about Narasimha Reddy’s heroics and fighting against the establishment. It is not often one comes across a film where a character coming to terms with her sense of purpose in life is turned into an act of patriotism, but Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy manages to do it convincingly. The title track of Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy, featuring Tamannaah, is one of the best cinematic highs in the film. It imbibes the spirit of nationalism quite beautifully.
Similarly, in another segment, when Narasimha Reddy tells his wife Siddhamma (Nayanthara) he must dedicate his life for the people, she accepts his request as a call for sacrifice. While he is about to sacrifice his life for the land where he was born, she, in turn, has to sacrifice her dream of being with him. Surender Reddy, the director of the film, turns Siddhamma into a patriot, whose sacrifice was essential for the greater good. It is also an ode to countless other women who lost their families and friends throughout the course of India’s freedom movement.
Then, there are incidents in the story where the characters challenge the dominance and rule of a foreign power on their own lands. One of the best written segments in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy has Chiranjeevi question a British officer about why should a farmer pay tax, when he is doing all the hard work. Unlike most other films set in pre-Independence era, where the local rulers lose control over their kingdoms to the British empire, the conflict in Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy is a lot more fundamental. Here, the lead character fights for survival, and the people’s right to live a dignified life. Towards the end of the film, when he is about to be hanged to death, Narasimha Reddy gives a rousing speech where he tells people to look him in the eye, and continue doing what he started. He appeals to them they must relay the baton to the next generation until they achieve freedom. Yes, the film does pit Indians against the British empire, and highlights how brutal the British regime was in its thirst for accruing resources and wealth, but it also tries to explain, rather subtly, that one’s love and pride for the country is a responsibility to ensure the well-being of citizens.
In an era where the discourse on patriotism has reached a fever pitch, and battles are being fought over what people eat, say, write, and even standing up for what is right, Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy tells the story of a rebellion in the mid-19th century, when people fought for reasons which we now take for granted, especially freedom of speech and the right to live. And in doing so, it repackages the idea of patriotism for a contemporary audience, and drives home the notion patriotism is as much about fighting against injustice as it about how much you love the country. In a way, this makes Sye Raa Narasimha Reddy a deeply relevant and political film without trying too hard to be so. The message is not only in what Narasimha Reddy says when he is about to die, but his life in itself is a message.
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Updated Date: Oct 09, 2019 12:36:07 IST